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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Soundscapes 4 Ways

One of my favorite lesson ideas to keep in my back pocket is soundscapes. I use soundscapes for sub plans, for when I have to change my lesson at the last-minute, when I need to do a one-off lesson with one class to catch up the rest of the grade, or when I'm just too exhausted to think straight (any of those scenarios sound familiar right about now? just me? ok great...). Today I want to share several ways I like to use soundscapes to give my students opportunities to explore sound sources, using music to communicate meaning, classroom instruments, and more.

For the purposes of this post I'm defining soundscapes broadly as a way to communicate an image through organized sound. When I explain it to my students, I compare it to the word, "landscape"- just like landscapes are a broad picture of a specific place, soundscapes communicate a broad, general image of something.

Here are several examples of different prompts I use with my students to explore the concept of communicating an image through sound:

1. Places

Of course the most common one I use is to have students portray a particular location. Usually I set this up as a small group project, but it can also be done as a whole class activity. I give each group a general location, like a beach, airport, playground, or city street. I have them make a list of all the sounds they might hear if they were standing in the middle of that location. Then I have them think of ways to imitate those sounds using different sound sources: found sounds, instruments, body percussion, and voice. Sometimes if we are working on a particular concept like vocal timbre, instrumental technique, or exploring found sounds, I will limit them to certain sound sources, but most often I will tell them they need to have at least one example of each category.

Once they have their list of sounds, the next step is to organize the sounds into a performance. This is where students tend to struggle the most. It's important to guide them in thinking through how to draw the listeners' attention to different sounds to convey the overall image- maybe some of the background sounds are performed throughout the piece, while others are performed once in a particular order, or layered in on top of each other.

When the soundscapes are ready, I have the audience close their eyes while they listen to each group perform, then try to guess what the location was supposed to be. If they have done their jobs, it should be obvious what image they were trying to convey through their sounds!

2. Poem / Story

The second most common way I incorporate soundscapes is using a book, story, or poem as a prompt. This is a more concrete way to introduce the concept with younger students, because I can ask students to come up with a "sound effect" to go with specific words or characters from the story. I first read the poem or story, then I tell students I want to add some sound effects to it. I go through and assign each student (or small group of students) to a specific word. Depending on what concept we're working on, I'll have them choose an instrument, vocal timbre, etc to match the word. Then I read again and have students perform the sound whenever they hear their word. To make it more like an actual "soundscape", though, it's fun to do it again but with silent reading- this works well if you have a picture book so that early readers can still follow along- by pointing to the words without reading out loud and having students perform their sounds when you point to their word. Then you can discuss how well the sounds communicated the story/ poem when the words are removed. Besides being a great way to explore sound, it's pretty fun to "hear the story" without the words!

Here are some examples of books I use in this way:

3. Silent / Muted Film

This is a bit of a departure from a true "soundscape" concept, but gets to the same idea: show students a short film with no sound and have them add sound effects to it. I do an entire unit on music and sound in movies with my 6th graders each year (here are the materials I use for this), and one part of that unit is learning about Foley: the art of live sound effects. This is a great extension of the idea of using a variety of sound sources to evoke a scene and contextualize this process for older students! Again this is a good opportunity to guide students in thinking about how to organize the timing of each sound: they are quick to identify specific sounds that happen with a specific event, like footsteps when a character is walking or a loud noise when something is hit, but the background noises that are a part of the scene are equally important to setting the scene!

4. Other Prompts: visual/art, feeling/adjective

Another way to extend the concept of soundscapes for older students is to have students use sounds to evoke a non-concrete concept rather than a concrete place or image. I love using this as a way to explore how music can communicate different moods and feelings, and also explore connections between music and visual art. I introduce the concept of conveying feelings through music to my younger students with lessons like these:

With older students I will use the same process as I do for more traditional soundscapes but instead of giving each group a location, I will give them a feeling word or adjective (like happy/ sad/ angry, or jagged/ fluffy/ bumpy, etc). I have each group come up with a list of words they associate with their assigned feeling or adjective, then come up with sounds that they think will communicate that idea. In this case I also prompt students to think about HOW they can play the sounds to communicate the idea- besides timbre, the tempo, dynamics, etc can also communicate a particular feeling.

Soundscapes, however you use them, can be a great way to explore music and sound in a structured way that allows students to be creative and think about the purpose behind the sounds. Are there other ways you have used this idea of soundscapes in your lessons? I'd love to hear about your ideas in the comments below!


  1. Thanks, this is really useful. Have you ever used soundscapes to teach history? I work in a museum and am thinking about doing this as a sum up activity - constructing a short soundscape or several based on different themes in the museum, and having students construct a story or scene from what they've seen in the museum based on the soundscape. So for example there might be the sounds of hooves, items being loaded (market), or the sound of wind and waves and creaking (shipwreck area etc). Have you tried something like that before?

    1. I haven't used them specifically to teach history but this sounds like a great idea! I think having a specific guiding theme will definitely help, but I think it would be a fantastic way for students to process and share their learning and it would be a very meaningful culminating activity!